When Movie Adaptation Miss the Point: Narnia Edition by Andrew Gilbertson
Oh, Narnia. Narnia, Narnia, Narnia. Whatever is it with you and adaptations? There was that animated one where the Witch explodes into black smoke (but at least they did some cool stuff with that ‘fire and water’ bit). Then there was that BBC one with the terrible, terrible costumes, and an Aslan that couldn’t lip-sync. It was fairly faithful, but… flawed, a bit. (Even if they managed to cast Silver Chair 100% perfectly, and no one who isn’t Tom Baker is really Puddleglum, nor can there be any true non-Camilla-Power Jill Poll!) There was also that lost black-and-white television serial version which I can’t actually watch (because it’s lost)- but if Troughton-era Doctor Who is any indication, would have been the epitome of awesome.
There are times it feels like they should never try to represent Narnia on film. Which is strange, because the effects and creatures are fairly simple by filmic standards, and the brevity of each work is enough to ensure that nothing would have to be left out.
And yet, there are times it seems as if only Focus on the Family has ever adapted Narnia properly (and even moreso than Puddleglum and Jill, David Suchet is the only man that has ever properly captured Aslan, for my two cents). There have been attempts, but each has had some issue (including the one that all of them share, namely NEVER FINISHING THE SERIES) that renders them less-than-perfect.
And then, we come to the modern film series.
I want to like the Narnia films- I really do. If nothing else, their sheer tenacity at coming back from cancellation puts both Doctor Who and Star Trek to shame. That each movie (sadly) fails at the box office, only for someone to manage to resurrect it again… well, it’s a testament to the enduring popularity of the Chronicles.
And there is a lot to love in the films. The musical scores are fantastic. Rupert Everett’s fox is… amazing- so much expressed in a simple voice. They get some scenes- like the encounter with Father Christmas, or Lucy and Tumnus- absolutely right. Others, while varying wildly from the books (like, say, the revelation that Eustace is a dragon, or the almost-summoning of the White Witch by the Hag and Werewolf), are still excellent scenes.
And yet… so much goes off the rails. When I was racking my brains for the contents of that last set of parenthesis, it occurred to me just how very much of each movie doesn’t follow the books at all… and how few of those scenes are successful. Changes are made left, right, and center- and while we can generously assume they’re well-meant and not an attempt to create some sort of LOTR rip-off, they tend to step on the book badly.
Some of them are harmless enough- but most of them deprive us of key moments or lines from the books. The divinity of Aslan is smothered in the dirt, while scenes both heartfelt and contemplative are replaced with action or bickering banter, and Miraz is turned into a bizarre Iraq War straw man/parallel. Even the fairly-immediate rapport between Eustace and Reepicheep (with the water-barrel confrontation turning into a mentoring in swordfight technique, and then an exchange of banter) weakens the character arc for Eustace, having him too ‘good’ too soon.
Lines like ‘Safe? Of course he’s not safe! …But he’s good,’ or ‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content,’ are lost. (And there’s really no excuse for dropping lines, as there was in LOTR, considering the length of the source material!)
Much of the wonder and strangeness of Narnia is diminished by choices like tying the sea serpent and the dark island together with this strange green mist- leaving neither as natural occurrences of the land itself. Indeed, attributing much of the difficulty encountered along the way- such as Deathwater’s temptation- to the mist (whatever one thinks of the use of the mist as a narrative device in the first place) takes much of the scope out of the Dawn Treader’s voyages… these are the traps and snares of an enemy intelligence, set to beguile as traps. Narnia is a far more ordinary place, because these things don’t exist unless they’re being created by an enemy.
And the loss of the restoration of the land in Prince Caspian is a travesty; turning the story into just another war tale- the salvation of Narnia by violence, rather than the emphasis of the book… by healing the downtrodden, restoring the oppressed, and bringing joy back to a weary people- which largely precludes the need for a fight. (In it’s way, this is very similar to the Gollum failing discussed in the last blog).
These are irritations; a list of complaints that irk those who know the books, who know that these things could have been more- but (arguably, in that last case) do not actively work against the themes of the books themselves.
Yet there are other changes that go beyond merely stripping out the richness of the settings, or denying us some great scenes, lines, and concepts from the Chronicles. Some of these changes actively work in contradiction to the intent of the original works. In the interest of time, and considering the laundry list of misdemeanors already chronicled above, we’ll just look at the two characters most impacted by this misunderstanding of their roles.
Once again, it seems that the majority of criticism falls on the second entry of the trilogy. This film, of the three, strays the farthest from anything even remotely recognizable as the original- as aforementioned above.
To be fair, the filmmakers tried to create something new- and that is, in its way, laudable. The novels never really explored the psychology of grown kings, leaders and warriors, having to suddenly return to childhood (though if you look closely enough, the implication is there- talk about Narnian air bringing skills back to the mind, for instance, or the forgetfulness about the lamp-post as adults, seems to suggest a dimming of other-worldly memories while in either land).
Using this opportunity to give Peter a story arc- struggling to resolve this aspect of himself, to let go of a fierce self-dependence and frustration that causes him to lash out at others, and even lose his faith in Aslan as he puts himself at the center of his own life instead- is a fairly strong story, and a good Christian theme. In its own way, it works.
But at the same time, the way it plays out in both Peter and Caspian’s relationship does a disservice to both characters. Both are leaders of men, great kings (one former, one to-be), noble and honorable and just. However, in the film, they are pictured as territorial, bickering, jealous rivals- each more concerned with his own power-play than anything else. While they put aside their differences for the good of their people eventually, it’s not until a heavy toll has been exacted… including a foolish raid on Miraz’s castle that, in the book, is immediately shot down as a terrible idea and never carried out!
But this Peter- this self-trusting Peter- puts himself and his pride first, and gets a great score of Narnians killed over nothing in the process. This is not High King Peter the Magnificent; indeed, the best the movie can do is mock that title, and rightly so… for the King Peter that they give us in Prince Caspian is anything but.
As a side-note, at least they got repentant, sticking-up-for-Lucy Edmund right… and the character of Lucy, for that matter. But one character that they did not get so right…
While I may not care for Neeson’s gentler tone compared to Suchet’s deeper, more primal version (which captured the aspects of ‘not safe, but good’ and ‘not a tame lion’ in a way that the films never do), this performance of Aslan does at least capture the tenderness and paternal care that belong with the character. This is not a full Aslan, but Neeson at least does justice to the aspects that they do capture.
However, those that are omitted create a substantially different character; a weakened, almost Jehovah’s-Witness-Aslan who is a different creature entirely… switching almost from creator to created.
Simply put, this Aslan has no authority. He does not know things about people- instead, he is told about them by Beaver and at first seems to know all about them. He does not make bold statements indicating himself as author, but instead offers vague statements that often start with the word ‘perhaps,’ as if he is musing in discovery right alongside the children. Even the mist-plotline of Dawn Treader, while intended to create a cohesive theme over a running travelogue and give a concrete antagonist for the film, depowers Aslan… as, even though he is present at the last battle (due to some major time-shifting of the dragon bits), it requires the mystical arrangement of the deus-ex-machina swords to dispel this threat to Narnia. Film-Aslan is seemingly unable to do so himself, even when it is taking place right in front of him.
The most condemning of all, to my mind, is a line change in Prince Caspian. Whereas Aslan once told Lucy, “To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that,” the line has now been changed to a weak, apologetic “We can never know what would have happened, Lucy.” In one line, Aslan has been turned from the omniscient authority who HOLDS the answer, to a limited, ordinary being who can only wonder at the answer alongside Lucy. He includes himself in the list of the ignorant.
This line is emblematic of all the lines removed, altered, and added throughout the first two films (thankfully, to a lesser degree in the third, which kept the ‘you must learn to know me by that name’ exchange intact). They all add up to an Aslan that is not the king, but a peasant. Who does not wield power, but is under power. Who is not a picture of Jesus in might and authority… but a picture of one of His disciples, wondering and uncertain and making-do.
This, above any change in the Narnia film adaptations, misses the point utterly of who Aslan is- and these paltry attempts to dodge the Christian aspects of the novels have ripped out the core of the character as well, leaving us with an Aslan-in-name-only that is still loving… but hardly wise, commanding, or wild. He is a very tame lion indeed.
…In retrospect, this article comes off- even to its author- as a largely negative, film-bashing piece. It isn’t meant to be (well… not against the first or third film, at least). I genuinely enjoyed LWW and VDT in the theaters, and genuinely like the movies. I look forward to seeing the series continued.
But at the same time, so much is changed and lost that the films can’t help but compare poorly to the books, in a deeper and more integral way than the Lord of the Rings films. And since the first two Narnia films in this modern series were made in an explicitly atheistic way, with an emphasis on LOTR-esque war scenes, they tend to miss the point very badly. Which is a shame, because Narnia is still waiting for its true, unencumbered adaptation.
The improvements evident in Dawn Treader give me hope that the rest of the series can become that unencumbered adaptation- if they can continue the upward trend and stop being so afraid of the theistic elements contained within. At least the Horse and His Boy will give them a large battle to work with already… if the series can survive its inevitable post-Silver-Chair cancelation. And perhaps the lack of any real war in Silver Chair will force them to reconsider their ‘epic finale’ approach of twisting the narrative to service a new, ‘bigger’ ending- and will instead cause them to look at the existing narrative and plot as the richest source of inspiration.
We can only hope that, whatever result is, the story remains faithful to its themes… especially when it comes to the Great Lion that underpins them all.
About the Author: Andrew Gilbertson
“Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…”